First Chapter - Creating MemoriesThis is a the sample first chapter of the medieval romance novel Creating Memories.
Laura spun smoothly through her counter-block, swinging her short sword in a high arc, relishing the bone-jarring frisson of contact as her opponent’s weapon skittered down the length of her own and barely missed her left shoulder. She lunged forward at once, pressing her advantage to lay a hail of blows that her opponent, a lanky, brown-haired teen, blocked with effort. The echoes of the strikes reverberated hollowly on his worn wooden shield. The lad grinned as he stepped back, and she flashed a smile in return as she swung again, immersed in bliss from the exertions of the autumn afternoon.
The blue skies seemed a cavernous dome above them, traces of white clouds dancing with the sounds of training which rang out from all sides. Laura breathed in the crisp air, taking in the scents of her well-oiled leather gear, the freshly turned dirt beneath their feet, and the musky stables nearby. She pursued her attack for a few more minutes, testing his weaknesses, smiling in appreciation as he reacted to her twists and jabs. Satisfied, she eased off, allowing him to take the lead.
Her opponent sensed the shift and dove in with vigor, using his greater strength to his advantage. Still, his blows rarely found their mark. Laura deftly twisted under one sweep, then jumped nimbly to dodge a move aimed at her ankle.
A church bell rang out strong and clear from the chapel down the hill, the sound echoing around the courtyard. Laura drew to a stop, and the teen lowered his own sword, resting it point down in the deeply churned dirt.
“Stuart, that was excellent,” praised Laura with a smile, looking up fondly at the lad before her. He might be a few years younger than her, but this past year’s sunshine had exuberantly shot him up several inches over her height.
“Your shield skills are improving at an impressive rate. We can pick this up again tomorrow, after -”
She glanced behind her as a scrawny, eggshell-blond boy of twelve dashed through the pairs of fighting men, wending his way deftly to her side. In a raspy voice which spoke of approaching manhood he called out in sharp staccato, “Your father demands your presence immediately. See to him.”
Laura slid her sword into her scabbard, pushing the escaped strands of auburn hair from her face with a distracted grimace. Her eyes automatically went to the large, three story stone keep which lined one side of the courtyard, to the bank of windows on the second floor which gave a commanding view of the bustling activity below. The warm afternoon sun came from behind it, leaving the courtyard in the shadow of the keep. The windows were dark, unfathomable depths, but she knew he was there. Watching. Judging.
She took in a deep breath to marshal her energies, then turned to follow the lad toward the heavy, wooden doors banded with iron strips. As she strode across the courtyard, a few of the men she passed gave her a fortifying look, their knowing gazes helping to steel her for whatever new punishment her father might have in store. She acknowledged their concern with a nod, but her step never faltered. She had faced his rages and tempers before and had survived. One more would do no worse.
The messenger abandoned her when she reached the main doors; her footsteps echoed hollowly as she crossed the deserted central hall alone. Reaching the narrow spiral staircase at the far end, Laura took the stone steps two at a time. She had just reached the top when the door to her father’s study burst open and a slim, red-haired girl came racing down the hall toward her, tears streaming from her swollen eyes. Laura’s heart dropped. Sally had been a sweet maid, friendly and helpful, and now undoubtedly her father had used and discarded her as one more casualty in his line of conquests. The girl did not slow as she passed Laura, racing down the stairs and out of sight.
Laura let out a long breath. So it was going to be one of those days. She ran her left thumb idly along the silver circle which had been on her ring finger since she hit puberty. The blue enameled forget-me-nots were half worn away from her constant rubbing, but she did not need to see them to know what they signified to her. She had vowed to herself, having watched her father work his way through every female within reach, that she would never give herself to a man until the night of her wedding. She would not allow herself to end up in the heartbroken, miserable state she had seen far too often. Life held enough pain without inviting more.
She forced herself into motion, taking the length of the hall in a few strides, resisting the urge to slow as she stepped through the open doorway and into the shadowed room beyond.
Like most of her father’s chambers the room was a precise combination of Spartan efficiency and high quality craftsmanship. She glanced around at the plain stone walls, at the one sword which hung on the back wall, encrusted with rubies. The desk at the center of the room was intricately carved out of oak and ebony. The rug beneath had been imported from Persia.
Laura knew her father was a man of intriguing contrasts. The youngest son of an impoverished noble family, it had been something of a local scandal when her well-to-do mother had consented to marry him. Since their union, he had poured most of the family’s money and resources into expanding his properties.
Her eyes scanned the room, but she knew where he would be. Her father was standing by the windows, looking out over the soldiers training in the courtyard. He was a muscular, stocky man, handsome in a bullish sort of way. His dark hair was short cropped and starting to fade to grey on the sides. His sense of simplicity did not extend to his own dress; today’s outfit was an ornate tunic with red and gold embroidery.
He turned as she entered the room, then nodded at the two guards who stood by the door. In a moment they closed the door behind her with a soft click. A shiver ran down her spine at the familiar sound, but she steeled herself so no flicker of emotion showed on her face. She walked forward to stand at parade rest before the desk.
Her father ran a steady eye up and down her frame as she stood before him. Laura glanced down at herself self-consciously. She was wearing doe-brown leather armor and pants with high leather boots, the uniform worn by all of his guards. The outfit was in good repair and only slightly dusty from the afternoon’s activities.
She brought her eyes back up to her father, meeting his gaze with a steady look. He would hardly be upset at her gear. He had treated her more as a guard-in-training than a daughter for as long as she could remember.
He nodded. “You have done well for yourself,” he commented frankly, done with his perusal. “The regimen agrees with you.”
Laura shrugged. “It was the path you set me on as a child,” she responded evenly, reciting her words as if by rote. “If I was going to wield a sword, I might as well learn to do it well.”
A smile creased her father’s face, and he chuckled quietly as he stepped forward. “Indeed you did. Barely twenty-one, and you are one of our lieutenants. The men respect your talents.” His grin widened. “You may not be strong, but you certainly are quick.”
Laura shrugged, watching her father with a sharp eye. She felt a nagging suspicion at his unusual praise. He was manipulating her for some reason … but why?
She had little patience for games. Despite her control, she found herself snapping at his unusual posturing.
“What is it you want?”
He frowned slightly, then strode to loom in front of her.
“You are going to marry James Falcon.”
Laura’s composure threatened to burst; waves of shock and appalled fury overtook her. She had been prepared for blows and insults, but this? A defensive strength infused her muscles, her hackles rose in alert, her spine shimmered into steel. She had complied with her father’s every wish, had endured grueling labor for years. This was the final straw.
“No!” she shot back, resistance flaming within her. She relished the sound of the challenge in her own voice.
Her father’s face roiled like a thunderstorm preparing to unleash hellish torrents. “You dare to countermand me?” he raged, his face flushing crimson, his jaw clenching.
In the next moment, his hand shot out in a well-aimed punch at her chin. Even though Laura knew it was coming, a part of her marveled at how quickly he moved. Her years of training served her well. She automatically ducked beneath the blow, rolling to the right and coming up in a defensive crouch.
The nearby guards, men she had sparred and drank with for many years, watched the activity with a neutral gaze. She would find no assistance there. She might be a valued comrade in arms, but her father was lord of the land and not to be gainsaid.
Her father took another step toward her, and Laura tensed for action. If he thought she was going to go down without a fight …
Apparently her father had no desire to injure goods which he was preparing for sale. A tic at the side of his jaw twitched subtly as he reined himself in, staring down at his daughter. Without turning, he barked an order to his guards. “Take her to her room. Now.”
The two men rolled off of the wall, complying instantly. Laura did not resist as they each took an arm and led her from the study. Within moments they had hauled her up the stone stairs to her room, gently but firmly tossing her within. It was her father who then personally slammed the door on her. The solid thwak of the bar driving home was clearly audible in the silence.
Her father’s voice thundered through the thick door, his anger resonating through the oaken beams. “You will stay in there until you are prepared to comply with my wishes!” There was a pause, and then his footsteps echoed as they retreated down the stairs.
Laura stared at the door for a few moments, taking in long, shuddering, deep breaths. To force her to marry that monster! She was deluged by the temptation to rail, to scream, to cry in exasperated futility. The power of her frustrations threatened to overwhelm her.
She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. With a control built on years of experience, she let her emotions flow through her and away. Slowly, ever so slowly, her shoulders eased of their tension. Her father had finally crossed a line which her sense of self-preservation utterly refused to accept. She found to her surprise that rather than fear, she felt only a growing sense of peace.
He had a right to choose her husband, of course. Had it been any other man, she would have fought down dislike and disdain to do her duty.
But not James Falcon.
She would not – she could not – allow herself to be partnered with that ruthless barbarian. That her father would even suggest such a match was the final proof that he cared little if she lived or died.
Opening her eyes again, she took a long look around her. Her room’s only item of decoration was a small, carved oak chest, about two feet long. Within were her most prized possessions. There was the periwinkle-blue shawl of her mother’s. Next to it lay a small codex of poetry from her maternal grandmother; she had memorized the contents long ago. Finally, there was a sapphire fronted locket. Her mother had given the necklace to her when she was young, to adorn her on her wedding day.
It would be too risky to carry those items with her now and chance losing them in the woods. Her father would storm and rage once she had gone, but then he would settle down to practicalities. It was a pattern she knew all too well. In a few weeks she would come back and reason with him. Together they would find another husband who suited both of their needs.
Her thumb went to her ring, spinning it gently on her finger, and her breathing eased. She would find a husband she could tolerate, and life would flow on.
Laura sat patiently on her meager bed, pulling aside the thick curtains by the lone window and waiting for the sun to set. The hours came and went in steady progression. Laura maintained her vigil patiently, gathering her strength. The rosy orb slipped lower, sliding down to meet the horizon, and darkness spread across the realm.
It was time.
She stood and turned, pulling hard on the lumpy mattress to bring it away from the wall. Lifting a loose floor board in one corner, she pulled out a small wooden token. She reset the room to its proper state.
Carefully tucking the coin into the leather belt at her waist, she gave one last glance at her small cell before swinging her legs over the window ledge. She steadied herself for a moment before beginning the three story descent to the ground below.
Inch by inch she worked her way down the outer stone wall, her strong fingers and leather boots finding the ledges and nooks to ease her way. She had learned the handholds and footholds of that wall over many years of nighttime escapades.
Once on the ground, she breathed a sigh of relief. The hardest part of the escape was behind her. She worked her way through the shadows to reach the stables. She slipped through the main door slowly, careful to lift as she pushed to avoid the squeaky hinge’s usual protests. She took her time in coaxing her favorite mount out of his stall as quietly as she could. Her thick cloak was hanging, as always, on a peg by the door.
No stable boy or servant stirred as she made her way through the courtyard to the main gates.
Once she reached the guards, she showed her wooden token without a word, keeping her face hidden in the shadows. The guards barely glanced at her cloaked form before allowing her to pass. Lord Walker was infamous for his after-hours traffic; horses were often coming in and out of the compound at odd hours. As long as the bearer carried a token, they were passed through without comment. Laura had learned that trick long ago, and had made good use of the knowledge many times.
And then … freedom.
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